Why Coolidge Matters: an Interview with Charles C. Johnson
Rescuing the reputation of one of America's most misunderstood and under-appreciated leaders.
May 26, 2013 - 10:00 am
Charles C. Johnson is the author of Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America’s Most Underrated President. Coolidge presided over the roaring 1920s, which saw massive technological and economic expansion. He provided a model of the presidency squarely at odds with the current occupant of the White House. Charles sat down with PJ Media to discuss his book.
Calvin Coolidge is one of our most underrated presidents and among our very best, both by what he achieved and by what he knew about the American republic. He was our last classically educated president and one of our most well spoken. And far from being Silent Cal, as so many think today, he was, in fact, silenced by New Deal historians like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who disliked both his political philosophy and its attendant success. The thinking went that if Roosevelt was to be the hero of the Great Depression, Coolidge, who had presided over the roaring 1920s, must have been its villain. Of course it’s a lot more complicated than that, but that’s what we’re so often told in our public schools. Rather than rebut Coolidge, these historians tried to caricaturize him in much the same way they tried to with Reagan. It was only after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed that Reagan got his just place in history.
Far from being silent, Coolidge ran for office nineteen times and won election to eighteen offices, working his way all the up from city councilman of Northampton through the presidency of the Massachusetts state Senate and governorship, all the way to president of the United States. He was a career statesman who was always aware of the issues facing the local population because he worked and lived alongside them and admired them.
He wrote three interesting collections of speeches, gave over 500 press conferences, wrote a thoughtful autobiography, and wrote a very interesting post-presidential column.
I set out to write the sort of book about Calvin Coolidge that I wish I had read and to report faithfully what he did. As an investigative journalist, I love puncturing myths that are out there about the world, especially political history. To paraphrase Reagan, there’s so much we know that isn’t so and that’s principally because of how the political left controls our understanding of history.
There are a couple of Coolidge books out there right now. How is the Coolidge you describe different than their Coolidge, particularly Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes? Who was closer to the mark, and why?
Having read Amity’s book, I think she tried to write a history of the 1920s more than she was interested in Coolidge’s political thought, which is unfortunate, because I think Coolidge’s views are timely even today and that the 1920s seem very remote to Americans living in 2013.
My more substantive complaint with her book is that she looks at what she perceives as the libertarian fruits of his political policies without really looking seriously at the political philosophy that underlay them. There’s no mention of his Whiggish understanding of history and no real insight into Coolidge the man. It seems as if she has read the New Deal historians who claimed Coolidge did nothing, and put a libertarian gloss on it. Whereas they condemn Coolidge for “doing nothing,” Amity praises Coolidge for “doing nothing,” comparing him, one time, to a windsurfer.
The truth is something that Reagan noticed and applauded — that Coolidge did quite a lot and that he did it by standing up for constitutional, limited government and that this view of government is ultimately at odds with the small-government, libertarian views that Amity presents.
Other times, Amity’s book is silent on key issues. There’s nary a mention of the Immigration Act of 1924 or the tariff. I believe that authors, particularly biographers, have to offer a compelling defense of the thought of their subjects, even when they personally disagree.
All that said, I’m in favor of there being as much competition as possible on Coolidge and a general free market. It’s good for consumers and I appreciate the sort of work that Amity does even if I don’t always agree with its conclusions.
You portray Coolidge as a progressive of a unique sort, not in the Teddy Roosevelt model, but another way. How?
Coolidge’s central insight is the continuing importance of the Declaration of Independence in our politics. This was a conscious appeal to the more Lincolnian understanding of American life: “that all men are created equal,” which he considered a final proposition from which there could be no progress because that was, as he put, the culmination of man coming into his own.
Coolidge saw the Declaration as both a product of the Enlightenment as well as a religious document. He reasoned from Garman that as we have a common God in God the Father, so we are brothers and therefore only republican government is possible.
And so, he was against any form of supremacism — be it government unions, which he considered a conflict of interest, or racism and eugenics, which he considered denial of the self-evident truth that all are created equal.
For him, the more republican we make our politics, the better. He believed in equality before the law above all else.
Or, put another way: that progress need not be progressive. Aristotle, for example, thought that the human sciences evolved but that the nature of man would remain forever fixed. That is not something that today’s progressives have fully embraced if they have even understood it.
As Coolidge put it, no political party can succeed if it isn’t at some level progressive. The question is what is our vision of progress. I would contend that we should embrace Coolidge’s view of the Declaration’s promise of natural equality and republican self-government.
You write: “Coolidge’s religious grounding prevented him from making Progressivism’s gravest mistake: rejecting the exceptional statesmanship of America’s founding.” He loved America’s founding principles, didn’t he, while Woodrow Wilson did not, right?
That’s right. One of the issues with the political left is that while they profess a love of America, they are always trying to remake it and deracinate it from its tradition and history. Wilson’s view was that the American system of government needed to change by tinkering with the machinery of government. The American system of separation of powers was too Newtonian, the thinking went, rather than evolutionary. It didn’t allow mutations, and change was what was wanted most. Wilson’s presidency (and his prior thought at Princeton) was to be an end-run around the American separation of powers.
Coolidge, by contrast, approached the American form of government as something to be revered. As he put it, “to live under the American Constitution is the greatest privilege ever accorded to the human race.” In Coolidge’s understanding, America had a missionary mission in the world. It was, after all, founded by Christian religious dissidents who had settled here because the sway of the “things unseen” mattered more than the things of the flesh.
As Coolidge saw it, the best statesmen and that the best politicians minister to man’s spiritual and moral nature, rather than just relying on efficiency arguments.
Indeed, for Coolidge, the ideal public servant was Christ. It was, as Coolidge put it, sacrifice of the fittest, not survival of the fittest, that revealed man’s real worth.
Wilson’s Christianity is far more Hegelian, far more Germanic, far more communal than Coolidge’s. His Christianity was also exclusionary, too, in the worst possible sense in that it didn’t seem to have overturned his deeply problematic racialist thoughts. While Coolidge is doing his best to censor the pro-Klan film Birth of a Nation, Woodrow Wilson was good friends with its author and invited him to the White House. Coolidge believed that blacks, Native Americans, immigrants, and others were equal citizens; Wilson treated them dismissively and sought to resegregate Washington.
Coolidge thought the nation could not survive without Americans being a religious people, and people of character and industry. You write that he told the Boy Scouts: “Our government rests on religion, the source from which we derive our reverence for truth and justice.” Would he be an optimist or pessimist if he were living today?
Were Coolidge alive today, I think he would be dismayed at the lack of religiosity. He advised immigrants to keep up their religion and thought that atheists could not be great because they didn’t understand an authority higher than themselves.
I think he would agree that the modern experiment we’ve had of trying to be spiritual without being religious or moral without divine guidance hasn’t worked out so well.
He also thought education about America’s founding principles and the liberal arts (as classically defined) was necessary to preserve liberty. He seemed to place faith in colleges and universities. Would he feel the same way about universities in 2013?
Coolidge understood that he who controls the schoolhouse door ultimately controls who walks through the door of the White House, an insight that we political conservatives ought to take more seriously
If you look at those higher education speeches in their totality, Coolidge was warning these institutions that by succumbing to progressivism they would lose something of their character, some sort of missionary spirit. Particularly at his speech at Holy Cross College, Coolidge was arguing that the new ideas of the progressives aren’t necessarily better and that those who are well-educated must also be, in a certain sense, traditionalist.
When it came to K-12, Coolidge believed that by paying teachers better, or rather by paying better teachers better, we might be able to prevent their attraction to anti-American ideas.
Coolidge would, I think, have been aghast at the degree to which we’ve allowed the government to take over education at all levels and at the extent to which we’ve allowed a government union — the teachers unions — to dominate so thoroughly our whole educational system. Let’s not forget that Coolidge, despite being well-educated at Amherst, was something of an autodidact. He read widely and thought through problems. To read his speeches is to understand how classically educated he was, and that education, of course, was reflected in his presidency. Coolidge, as usual, put it best, this time in his autobiography: “[My teachers] gave me a vision of the world when it was young and it is almost impossible for those who have traveled that road to reach a very clear conception of what the world now means.”
If Coolidge was right, that character, education and religion are necessary for the nation to survive and the principles of the Rule of Law and individual freedom to prosper, how could he possibly be happy about what is happening in America today?
I’m not so sure he would be, especially when you add to that the fact that local government is a den of corruption. In fairness, though, so many of these problems were also alive and well in Coolidge’s day as well. Civilization seems to be a constant struggle.
The Obama administration is characterized by twisting (or disregarding) the law that Congress has passed to achieve ideological ends. For example, the Justice Department has brought cases twisting gender discrimination law to allow for middle school boys to dress in drag and has waged a totally unsuccessful war against peaceful prolife protesters. What would Coolidge think of the executive self-legislating and what were his views on the job of the executive branch?
Coolidge very much believed in the separation of powers and in what we might call the unitary executive theory today. He understood that the division of powers between those who make the laws and those who execute them is an essential part of the development of republican constitutional governance. He knew that the separation of powers had its origins in the English Civil War, when pamphleteers called for disentangling the executive from the legislative authority in hopes of diminishing the arbitrary power of the king. These early republicans, who included Paradise Lost author John Milton in their company, sought to guarantee the stability of their envisioned republic by separating those who made the laws from those who executed them.
“Our Constitution has raised certain barriers against too hasty change,” he said. “I believe such a provision is wise,” Coolidge continued. “I doubt if there has been any change that has ever really been desired by the people which they have not been able to secure. Stability of government is a very important asset. If amendment is made easy, both revolution and reaction, as well as orderly progress, also become easy.”
Considering what sort of President Coolidge was, it’s no surprise that the leftists in the ivory tower of academia have treated him badly. What are some of the familiar attacks they’ve used to reconstruct the Coolidge narrative over the years?
One of the biggest slurs against Coolidge is that he was somehow responsible for the Great Depression. The presidents who put the “great” in “Great Depression” were Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Coolidge, though he was a Republican like Hoover, disliked him immensely. He criticized Hoover’s “socialistic notions” of government in his post-presidential column, as well as dismissively referring to him as a “wonder boy” and saying “for six years that man has offered me unsolicited advice, all of it bad.”
The recession of 1920 was, in fact, more pronounced than the crash of ’29. The Harding-Coolidge ticket essentially did nothing, cut the size of government and taxes, and we got the roaring 1920, where average incomes increased 33%. Many Americans wanted Coolidge to run in 1928 and even in 1932. He remained popular and there was a widespread belief that he could end the Depression were he to run again. When asked about running to end the depression, he said that running again would be the beginning of his depression!
Describe Coolidge and his approach toward racial issues of the 1920s, including lynching and the Klan’s power in politics of the ’20s.
Coolidge was perhaps the 20th century’s first civil rights president, an honor that was only recently just noted by Kurt L. Schmoke, vice president and general counsel at Howard University. Coolidge thought of blacks, Native Americans, and women as full and equal citizens because he believed in the natural equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence. He thought that as these groups had partaken of the duties of self-government, they were entitled to full rights and privileges.
These two quotations best express his point of view and really speak for themselves:
“The American theory of society is founded in part on this condition. It asserts the equality of men. That means equality of kind. All are endowed with the same kind of mind, for it is mind alone that makes man, the capacity to know the truth. That capacity, once it comes into being, does not change. It is the same now as at the dawn of its creation, however it was created.”
“There should be no favorites and no outcasts; no race or religious prejudices in government. America opposes special privileges for any body and favors equal opportunity for every body.… As a plain matter of expediency, the white man cannot be protected and as a plain matter of right…justice is justice for everybody.”
Did Coolidge subscribe to the eugenics movement of the time embrace by Democrats like Woodrow Wilson or did he subscribe to the Christian view of mankind?
The Republican platform of 1920 explicitly supported eugenics, but Coolidge did not, because it was impossible, he said, to measure the “possibilities of human soul.” “It is not only what men know but what they are disposed to with that which they know that will determine the rise and fall of civilization.” The Darwinist notion of survival of the fittest was also similarly flawed, Coolidge suggested, for it was not through survival but through sacrifice that republics revealed their best men. Coolidge believed that as we had a common Father in God we were all brothers and that the only form of government that was possible was self-government in a republic.
Are Coolidge and Reagan the two great Republican defenders and admirers of the principles in the Declaration of Independence in the 20th century?
Coolidge and Reagan both understood that America had a special purpose in the world.
“We must always remember that America is a missionary country, and I do not limit that word to its religious sense,” Coolidge said when accepting the nomination for the vice presidency. This missionary sense came from America’s founding, in which she was conceived as a “new power destined to preserve and extend the rights of mankind.” As such, her people “are not without justification in assuming [she] has been called into existence to establish, to maintain, to defend, and to extend that principle,” as he told an audience of black veterans.
Your book describes Coolidge’s admiration of General William Shepard. Tell the readers who he was and his part in the long tradition of self-sacrifice to preserve the Rule of Law.
William Shepard was an “illustrious son of Westfield,” who had put down the insurrection of Shays’ rebellion. General Shepard, much beloved by some for defending Massachusetts “at all hazards,” feared that Shays’ 1400 men would use the weapons within the Arsenal to lay waste to the countryside. He feared that once armed, they would be difficult to stop. The men had encircled the Arsenal and stood ready to attack it as they prepared a siege of the already poorly equipped Shepard. Shepard, awaiting General Lincoln from the Continental Army, knew he could not afford to wait longer. Shepard ordered his men to fire at “waistband height,” successfully defending the Springfield armory with cannon fire, killing two instantly and wounding over twenty more with shot by ordering his men to strike at their waists with “grape shot.” The insurgents quickly broke their assault on the armory and fled.
Coolidge’s invocation of him and decision to speak before a group honoring him can only be seen through a political prism, coming as it did in the context of the police strike of 1919. Coolidge saw much to admire in him. To protect law and order, General Shepard, with a local unpaid militia of some 900 men, lacking either food or adequate arms, had disobeyed an order from Secretary of War Knox denying him permission to use the weaponry at the Springfield armory as Congress was not in session and so could not authorize taking the arms. Shepard, reaching the armory before Shays, took the arms anyways, and restored order, but it was not without personal cost to Shepard, who died much poorer.
For Coolidge, the political legacy of Shepard was evident: Here was a patriot who had freely given of himself so that his “ancient town” could have an “establishment of liberty, under an ordered form of government” by the “people themselves.” “When we turn to the life of her patriot son,” Coolidge told the Westfield crowd on the town’s 250th anniversary, “we see that [Shepard] no less grandly illustrated the principle, that to such government, so established, the people owe an allegiance which has the binding power of the most solemn obligation.” Just as Shepard rejected Shays’ mob, so too would Coolidge reject the mob of a general strike because it was Coolidge’s “solemn obligation” to uphold the law.
Coolidge was president soon after the implementation of the Seventeenth Amendment brought the direct election of senators. Did he see this as a good or bad thing and why?
Coolidge supported the direct elections of senators in his early career, though as I argue it ultimately hurt his foreign policy to have senators so dependent on fickle public opinion rather than on state legislators for their support.
While Professor Ralph Rossum has shown in his book Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the Seventeenth Amendment: The Irony of Constitutional Democracy that it had an unintended consequence related to federalism by essentially making the states just another interest group to contend with, rather than relying on their input through the state legislations.
I’ve always thought that it’s possible in the age of Tammany Hall and machine politics that while the Seventeenth Amendment was destructive of federalism, it might have made things more republican. For example, when the first direct elections for U.S. senators were held in ’14, progressive candidates were defeated in droves.